(…the last thing we want to see…)
From the gentle vision of familiarity transformed that opens our eyes to the possibilities of redemption in the everyday (the garden, the dwelling place) to the apotheosis of Nature that renders us speechless before the vista of boundless forests and the torment of mountain storms. The Landscape; confirming and challenging the world of the viewer, as much a matter of symbol as of reality, of our interior vision as of the vision of land and sea - impinging even on the hidden foundations of the self.
(Landscapes taken in their entirety; from the whole as source of meaning to differences in kind and their typology…)
Landscapes and their kinds, the force of their impact, their interpretation and classification, may be found to rest on a difference of point of view. Our point of view; but not ours alone. The point of view of temporality and its other; the relation to the end which is the end of time. Offering the choice of a view of time lost, a time to come, or a time without time. Otherwise put: (re)collection, anticipation and the mythic and religious connotations of the ‘otherside’ (the rhetorical ‘outside’, here the outside of time itself). In short: the difference between stored views, desired views and views of eternity.
Stored views (an image to be remembered, the image in place of memory). Genre of household and property; an economic landscape (farming, pasture); a record of possession of dwelling, of a culture of dwelling. Of history painting; views of the archaic, classical and medieval revived; historical memory coinciding with historical fantasy. In the recent past we have the genre of the countryside remembered, before the industrial revolution, the word of Constable et al, also the realm of memory as idealisation. The rural in its opposition to the urban offers us two forms of pastoral: one idealised (an ancient and traditional rhetorical form, anti-urban, authenticist, moralist); the other (no less rhetorical or moral in its persuasive intent) realist – often to the point of brutalism and abjection (the scene of rural melodrama). Then there are things rendered impressive, inflated into the image hyperbolic because remembered (as if) by way of a childhood memory; the prism of the past as distorting mirror. How many Romantic and Impressionist views owe their origins to such ‘memories’?
Desired views; imagined that is, a memory projected (nothing comes out of nothing), a vision built on stored views and their variations. Here the Classical, Medieval and other historical epochs are reconfigured to form the ideal vision of utopian social desire; a desire concretised by means of ‘other’ periods of history. The desire for a transfigured world; Impressionism’s light (in this light). Light also are the genres of landscape and play (sexual desire); Fragonard and the 18th century together with the many Romantic views that followed. The presence of lightening often betrays the desire for god, for the law of the sublime (the desire of God) evinced in threatening landscapes where Nature itself would remind us of our insufficiency, our proximity to dust, and point us to a place always further away than the future, no matter how distant.
Views of eternity; otherwise unimaginable views. However as they are imagined they must be based upon those described above; remembered, then desired, then desired as unimagined yet requiring a mode of presentation. The borrowing of an image, so enabling a viewing beyond the visible (or hitherto remembered visible) to the unremembered -as we would like to believe- the unremembered scene beyond. In this way all that is former, all that has come before is justified, perhaps even redeemed, as it becomes the indispensable support for the impossibility of the last thing, the place that is always just below the horizon one faces, the source, as one would imagine it, of the light that appears to exude, to seep, to originate from this hidden place, there. In this way eternity is shown: either directly, as in the history of religious art, with its images of heaven or the afterlife; or as a transfigured landscape, superficially the same but figuratively connoting elsewhere, an effect often due to a certain quality of light that sets it apart, so very beautiful and so very, very far away… As much the genre of Dream Vision as Landscape.
(A very art-historical culmination: the absence of the abstract landscape as the presence of this impossible diexis. Abstract Expressionism as the expression of this necessary non-place.)
And, lying at the other end of the spectrum, the trace of eternity in all landscape (the possibility of its idealisation, the potentiality for us to locate somewhere within the image before us the light that would change everything, the means by which we give ultimate value to our world). Light on metal, the glimmering divider of the world. The gold and quicksilver of the eye.
The mirror of landscape as graft for the unshowable.
Landscape of hope. Coincidence of the later two categories; the desired
landscape and the landscape of eternity. The last thing is that which lasts, from lasting to ever-lasting is a small step, but one
taken as the bridging of a chasm. The genre of subjunctive stability, the lust
for order, the demand for repeatability, for return, the return of the view, of
a world in which we may recognise ourselves, predictable in the face of change.
Predictability itself (not too much to ask?) What we
believe we want forever (because we may safely never find it). This then is the
landscape as earthly garden, of earthly garden as heavenly garden; of return as
eternal, of the city on a hill as the
Landscape of redemption. Coincidence of first and last categories; the stored landscape and the eternal landscape; the realm of restoration, the bridge over the dissatisfactions of the present, the cure for the Fall. The genre of the ruin; masquerading as a memento of the past its function as a memento mori nevertheless points us unswervingly towards eternity. Or the memory of an ideal moment, of a site, place; or memory as ideal, of the image as ideal and so of memory transfigured. The image is never adequate to the place; yet exceeds it as the glow of the image outshines all brute space (the place is already a creation of our own, otherwise it would be condemned in perpetuity to the invisibility of everyday space).
Landscape, the interposition of our frozen breath on the mirror (we too are the source of the vision that comes between us and ourselves). Image as the last resort of the unsayable.
The landscapes of petrified reality. As all landscapes are but petrified reality; a chemical fixing of the flux of vision.
And when not Beautiful: Sublime. If our desire of the landscape is not assuaged through rest and order; then terror awaits (the landscapes of John Martin and much of the Romantic landscape). Within which we may perhaps discern two forms of the Sublime: the first all terror and destruction, the sacrifice of self mirrored in the topic of the image; the other a simple over-awing by size, configured, at best, by the upland mountain view, beauty with size and impersonality (a sensation personified as the mountain god), in effect the trope of hyperbole (like the making of giant Buddhas, and other immortals in stone) as applied to the making of landscape.
(Dystopian landscapes; the destructive will of the Sublime taken too far. Or the suspicion of culture (of the will to science, productivity, knowledge) taken too far. Symptomatic? Or predictive? As the landscapes of nuclear winter are superseded by those of global warming).
The (trace of the) ideal in all representation; which we may also call form, or style, or technique. Altering, showing, offering the possibility of showing, of representation itself (before photography) but at a cost to the object, to the landscape - becoming our landscape, our object, in the process of reproduction, the manner (becoming the fact) of reproduction, removing immediacy and replacing it with a veneer of ideality. Whence its removal from time.
Becoming timeless. Becoming representation. The line and the still; impression of what has already been lost (all images are survivors, albeit preserved in the permafrost of representation – a chill spell only lifted by the melting wind of interpretation). The image as the creation of (the reference to) that which never can be lost (all images present a world indebted to vision).
Landscapes may also be taken as a collection of parts; read as an assemblage; found to be temporally fractured wholes (just like the constitution of those who watch over them). Meaning is now linked to the key parts of landscape and their co-ordination, a creation of significance aided by variation in the realms of colour, hue, brightness, saturation and resolution, also through the disposition of the internal frame and the tension between margin and centre.
Planes and grounds in their symbolic guise; the mapping of narrative masks the mapping of the self onto the image; the difference between a two dimensional external view (time as a stream of events perceived from without) and an internal three dimensional participation (where we identify the differences between past, present and future).
Top or background (sky, with or without skyline). In the art of the world, whether east or west, south or north, this is the zone of symbols that belongs to the gods and immortals. In Medieval western and Chinese art alike, this is the realm of deities, of their home, the heavens; of ideals, the true field of their aspirations, a land free of contingency; of the sublime, the domain of the unrepresentable - often presented as real but nevertheless suggestive of a realm beyond the sub-lunary. The realm of illuminated peaks and upland pastures, of floating mountains and the impossible elegance of the castles of European medieval art.
Foreground (a space that is usually expanded to include the centre of the image). The ground of the present, temporal, earth-bound – if not the present in actual nor historical terms, then their intuitive equivalent in terms of the parallels we use to make sense of the picture (the place of the viewer, the viewer’s present in the picture). The place we find ourselves in the picture. Our point of entry, our time, our present and the picture’s present. The bridge that enables us to match ‘now’ with ‘now’, and so align our other temporal facets with those in the picture, assigning the values of past and future, before and after (even though in terms of absolute chronology all the events depicted may have happened long, long ago). The amalgam of the two presents offers meaning, and provides the conduit for the transfer of the moral from image to self.
The ambiguous middle. Often just the back or middle ground to the other two grounds, the foreground-with-centre and sky(line). Sometimes clearly (in the narrative art of many cultures, and many different art historical traditions) the past or future of the event depicted in the foreground and so part of a narrative dissected, spatialised and displayed like entrails or a journey across the planes of the image. Sometimes amorphous, oblique, suggestive, not quite simply one or the other of the available temporal valencies, never clearly quite past or future. Like the separated middle ground of Chinese art, an island easily transposable forward or backward in time (before and after in Chinese art topography begins with the metaphysical level, with the universal above and the particular below, the in-between takes its place in this sequence, its symbolism coded accordingly). On the temporal level, the level of narrative, the choice of left to right and right to left directionality remains open in Chinese medieval art: whilst in the Western tradition the movement from left to right –our viewer’s left to right- remains the default directionality. Or like the events in the background (but beneath the distant horizon, and the sky) of European medieval art which may also be transposable in time.
(Certain Chinese landscapes present themselves as the essence of these three parts, the three grounds; the minimal rhetorical parts, all revealed in minimal strokes; segregation on the page the source of maximal meaning. Significance as the product of the placing of a ground).
Other parts. The internal frame: the hole in the rock, the over-arching branch reframing a part of the landscape, offering it up, together with the events it depicts, as the past (or future) to the foreground’s present. The margin; the events pushed to the edge of the picture (to its left or right edge) in contra-position to the those of the centre or in a relation of commentary to their topic (the female mourners on the margin of David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’, pushed to the right edge, a future prognosis, a prophecy of disaster).
Net effect of temporal rhetoric in the depiction of landscape. From the whole and its parts to their collective co-ordinated impact on the person that stands before it. The artwork, the landscape as ritual.
The ritual force of landscape as a genre, from the trace of last things, the glow of the ideal at the rim of the universe to the proud boast of the collector (of land, as of images). A collector of inner visions (and we are all such a collector) the envisioned space of emotional equivalents, in every way similar to music, coefficients of internal states and their growth, their life.
Landscapes are the music of the eye.
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk